Corporal and spiritual works: From mechanical provisioning to acts of love
The Pope’s renewed emphasis on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy could not be more timely. One of the points I hope Francis will make is that the two categories—corporal and spiritual—are inseparable. There are two reasons for this:
- Those in a position to perform the corporal works of mercy will seldom do them frequently or do them well unless they have, at some point, been interiorly transformed by the spiritual works.
- Those constantly receiving the corporal works of mercy cannot learn to deal with their incapacities in a positive way, whatever they may be, unless they are also transformed interiorly by the spiritual works.
Without the spiritual works, the corporal works are dead. It is never enough simply to provide basic material needs to another without taking a personal interest. There is no human warmth in that exchange. The fullest dimension of a work of mercy is realized only when we enter into a relationship of love with the whole person, coming to know that person’s dreams and fears, strengths and weaknesses, joys and sufferings. This is perhaps the most important point made by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in the second part, where he describes the practice of charity in the Church.
I do not mean to say that every charitable act can be performed with thorough attention to the whole person. Sometimes large numbers of people suffer a catastrophe which puts them in need of extraordinary and rapid material relief. At other times, we are performing the corporal works of mercy at one remove, perhaps donating to an organization that can serve “on the ground”. But especially in chronic situations, we need to recognize that it is not handouts that transform those we serve; it is our love. In exactly the same way, it is love that transforms those who serve, not the handouts they provide.
The politicization of charity
This fundamental reality is nowhere more evident than in the modern politicization of “charity”. Hopefully, those in government will be motivated by love, including a strong sense of justice, to serve the common good. This is eminently desirable, but laws and regulations cannot substitute for the transformative power of love in person. Moreover, human governments are notorious for using dependency to ensure the continuation of those in power. The classic instance is the use of bread and circuses to keep the masses happy in ancient Rome.
But this is far more than an ancient practice. In our own day, the regulatory state typically uses “benefits” to create dependent classes. The predictable result is that the poor will vote not for those who are most given to charity, but for those who are most willing to use the political system (typically mortgaging the future) to ensure the flow of these benefits. The American system is the only one I know well, but I take it to be more or less paradigmatic. In the United States, study after study has shown that dependent classes vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, guaranteeing State largesse, rather than for Republicans, who personally donate about forty percent more to charity than their counterparts across the aisle.
What is most damning about this separation of the material from the spiritual is that there is relatively little movement out of dependent classes over time. Some basic human needs are met, but the whole person is rarely engaged in a way that breaks the cycle of poverty and dependency. These more or less permanent underclasses play an enormous role in shoring up the secular liberal power structures which characterize our world. This should not surprise us. People often shoot themselves in the foot, owing to short-sightedness, when they are not loved.
Sadly, the Catholic Church has been complicit in what is essentially an abusive pattern. The institutional charities that should be most active in offering both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, engaging the whole person in a context of love and self-giving, have increasingly given themselves over to the distribution of aid provided by public grants. These are too often administered bureaucratically, without seeking to transform both the recipient and the giver through a mutually enriching relationship of love that can engage not only at the material but at the spiritual level.
Some conscience-stricken Catholic agencies are at long last choosing to withdraw from the administration of publicly-funded benefits, for the simple reason that our increasingly secular governments do not permit the kind of spiritual and moral engagement which alone can effect long-term good. However, some Catholic agencies have redefined themselves so that Catholic moral and spiritual commitments do not bar their access to the public trough. This is a significant scandal. Somewhere along the line, material benefits began to be viewed even by many in the Church as more significant than the spiritual essence of charitable work.
In a similar vein, Catholic agencies have repeatedly hired their staff from the secular-liberal labor pool, making it easy to engage in “charitable” works which explicitly contradict Catholic moral teaching. Interestingly, there is now a watchdog organization which exists solely for the purpose of exposing multiple moral betrayals by Catholic Relief Services. It is indicative of the depth of the problem that a spectacularly high percentage of CRS employees contribute to pro-abortion political candidates.
Authentic works of mercy
Instead, all of us need to develop a renewed conception of what it means to serve those in need, a conception which has already been presented in Pope Benedict’s encyclical:
[H]uman beings always need something more than technically proper care…. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity….
Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs….
Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. [Deus Caritas Est, 31]
A constant awareness of the relevance of the spiritual works of mercy to the corporal works (and vice versa) enables us to forego treating symptoms in favor of engaging the whole person. It is impossible to meditate on counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner and comforting the afflicted without seeing human situations in a new way. A spiritual perspective reminds us of the full identity of those we serve, even as it enables us to recognize our own full identity as servants.
This spiritual perspective makes it impossible to perform any work of mercy ideologically or statistically. If we keep this spiritual perspective in our minds and hearts, what may begin as a mechanical process of provisioning will end as something greater than a “process”. It will end in a mutually transformative experience of love.
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